On the Bartang roads
Full of potholes, often flooded, sometimes blocked by snow. The rocks fall, the sand flows down. The legs hurt, the vehicles break down. The sun is strong, the path is steep, oxygen becomes scarce.
The Bartang roads promise a challenging trip, regardless of the form of transportation you choose. The only car road necessitates a constant maintenance, made with local means and local forces, prompting residents to engage with matters and elements in an intimate way, and making them take risks, too. Some have lost a sister, a mother or a son in the turbulent waters of the Bartang River, which overflows and violently embraces the road.
The Bartangis have become dependent on automobility, yet the motorisation is so low, they may have to wait for days or weeks before finding a seat in a shared car. Everyone can’t afford to pay the high fare, which makes motility very limited. Travelling also requires time, at least ten hours from the bottom of the Valley to Khorog, the provincial capital. “Should I go to the city and risk staying stuck there, as the road may close anytime?” is a common interrogation among mothers, who sometimes avoid going to the city’s healthcare facilities because they can’t afford to leave their house for a long time given their role as central caretakers of the household.
Bartang maraw, ki roh-i Bartang khatar ast, “Don’t go to Bartang, because the road to Bartang is dangerous” is a well-known saying throughout Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains. Such warning suggests the many difficulties posed by the trip, but it also limits flows and allows to preserve the tranquility of the Valley, which many residents call panohgoh, a refuge.
“The Bartang Roads” is a very short film made with videos recorded or gathered during my fieldwork in Tajikistan between 2016 and 2020. Some videos were shot by research participants and kindly shared with me. Most people who appeared in the video were research participants who had given consent to participate in my research, others (in “collective” scenes) were aware that I was a geographer doing research in the Bartang Valley. My presence in the Valley as a filming foreigner was usually very welcomed and even appreciated, especially when research participants were asking me to take videos in order to “show to the world how hard life in Bartang can be”.
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